On Thursday 27 June, 2019, Employed To Serve (opens in new tab) stepped onto Glastonbury’s (opens in new tab)Scum Stage for the most unexpected set of their career. “Glastonbury was a huge one. It wasn’t even on my bucket list because I didn’t think it would be possible, being a heavy band,” enthuses vocalist Justine Jones.
“It really went off,” adds guitarist Sammy Urwin. “It wasn’t just like a bunch of people came in and watched us politely with their arms folded. It was one of the best festival appearances we did that year.”
Sharing Glasto’s Shangri-La area with the likes of Denzel Curry, Gojira (opens in new tab) and Venom Prison (opens in new tab), Woking’s metallic hardcore quintet were part of a collection of artists pushing the boundaries of heavy music, and keen to bring it to the mainstream. The show indicated that they were growing in stature; they ended the year supporting Bury Tomorrow (opens in new tab) and had big plans for 2021. Then the pandemic hit.
Like other bands, Employed To Serve had their ambitious touring schedule cut short. Plans to play Europe and America, before sub-headlining the Avalanche Stage at Download (opens in new tab), were unceremoniously shelved for the foreseeable future.
Things were looking so grim, there was only one thing for it: they would write a new album, Conquering, and manifest their goliath musical vision. Quickly, the writing process became a turbulent one. Last Autumn, allegations of sexual harassment (opens in new tab) were made against Alex Fitzpatrick, owner of Holy Roar records, the band’s previous label and where Justine worked as label manager. Alex has denied the allegations.
Most of Holy Roar’s roster immediately cut ties with the label, including Justine, who had played an integral part in shaping its identity. “It put me in a bad place. There’s no skirting around it; I still feel upset and I don’t think it will ever fade,” she explains. “But, Holy Roar was bigger than just one person. It was the whole team behind it, it was the scene and it was the fans. It was a collective and, in my eyes, it always will be.”
Many of the bands involved with Holy Roar were long-time friends of ETS, so in an attempt to salvage some upcoming releases, Justine reignited Church Road Records, the distro label that Sammy created in 2017. Getting a label up and running in a couple of weeks was intense, but Justine helped release the biggest albums of some bands’ careers: Svalbard’s (opens in new tab) When I Die, Will I Get Better? (opens in new tab), Palm Reader’s (opens in new tab) Sleepless (opens in new tab) and Respire’s Black Line, which are still going into multiple pressings.
“There was no point where I was like, ‘Let’s not do this anymore,’” says Justine, “Especially now when the music scene has been devastated by COVID, I think it’s more important that there are people like us there to get new bands through and grow them.”
Considering the events of the last year and a half, Conquering is an apt statement of intent from musicians who seem to be entering the PMA era of their careers. In addition to starting a label and writing music last year, Justine and Sammy (who married late in 2019) released Unashamed, the first EP from their posi-core side- project, Glorious, and are bringing ferociously upbeat positivity to ETS’s fourth album. Packing mighty battlecries, livewire grooves and a triumphant attitude throughout, this is an album about storming into a brighter future with your devil horns raised high.
“It’s so easy to let anger get the better of you, and this is an album about self-empowerment. It’s about conquering yourself,” says Sammy. “I think the MO came from that feeling you get when you listen to our favourite bands like Slipknot (opens in new tab)and Hatebreed (opens in new tab). You put them on and feel so much better for it.”
ETS have recreated the fist-pumping empowerment of these bands by embracing a more instantaneous, straight-ahead metallic sound. Album opener Universal Chokehold builds slowly and and features violins, before the band come barrelling in with Trivium-esque (opens in new tab) flair and crushing vocals. It’s a polished beginning, demonstrating that ETS can maintain their fighting-talk ruggedness while crafting bold statements of intent.
It’s the latest step for a band who have always been comfortable with progression. They started off as Botch-inspired (opens in new tab) violent hardcore upstarts, and then incorporated nu metal (opens in new tab) stompiness. “Our first albums had the very British trait where you’re a bit of everything,” explains Justine. “We were too hardcore for the metal kids and too metal for the hardcore kids, whereas with Conquering we’re more definitive with what we are.”
“With this record, we wanted to flex our influences that come from a more traditionally metal background,” explains Sammy. “Like old-school Machine Head (opens in new tab), Lamb Of God (opens in new tab), and thrash influences from Exodus (opens in new tab) and Testament (opens in new tab). We’ve put our own spin on it, but we want to sit more neatly there and tour with bands in that world.”
Alongside this increase in melody, Sammy has taken on vocal duties, introducing more cleans and allowing for call-and response vocal parts. It’s most intense on Exist, which features the ‘This is hell’ vocal refrain they got the crowd to sing at Download Pilot (opens in new tab) this year. Both musicians maintain it’s the best example of where the band are in 2021. “Exist has a bit of everything,” says Justine, before Sammy adds: “…It’s a little bit of who we’ve been before, and it’s a good song to represent where we’re going.”
Metal doesn’t get much bigger than Exist, and it was modelled on the best. “The bands I grew up listening to, they bring you in, and then you go back to it and it’s still heavy. Songs like Sad But True by Metallica (opens in new tab); they’re catchy and heavy as shit,” says Sammy.
“They look and sound metal but they don’t alienate people,” adds Justine. “I think stuff like that is important for metal to be in the limelight again. You don’t ever want to be a metal band that doesn’t sound metal; you want to maintain the heavy edge but be accessible.”
When it comes to accessibility, not only are ETS emulating icons such as Slipknot and Hatebreed, they’re embracing a new generation of artists who are happy to blur genre boundaries. Last year, they collaborated with hyper-animated rap mega-star Ashnikko on a transformed cover of her hit song Cry, which showcased them to a young, open-minded audience. “I think it’s important that people do what they want with the genre. We want to leave ourselves open to do things like the Ashnikko song. Keep an open mind while waving a flag for the dirty grungers,” grins Sammy.
Likewise, Justine aspires to help end metal gatekeeping and make the genre accessible. “It’s about moving metal into 2021. It’s inclusive and everyone’s invited to listen to our band,” she says. The Conquering album cycle is set to expose more people than ever to ETS. Next year, they’re even supporting Gojira in arenas – a well-deserved opportunity to continue their rise from the underground. Could Conquering be their equivalent of an Iowa (opens in new tab), Perseverance or The Blackening (opens in new tab)? We wouldn’t bet against music this monumental.
Conquering is out September 17 via Spinefarm
Employed To Serve support Gojira in the UK in March 2022